Since the end of the regular season, Jason Varitek has been in limbo. With the veteran catcher –– and team captain –– pushing 40 years heading into the 2012 season, his status on the Red Sox roster has been unknown.
The answer apparently came on Tuesday, though, when the Sox signed catcher Kelly Shoppach to a one-year deal. With Shoppach, Jarrod Saltalamacchia and Ryan Lavarnway vying for the spot, it likely signals the end of the Varitek era in Boston.
Cue the Boyz II Men song "End of the Road." After 15 years, 757 RBIs, three All-Star appearances and two World Series titles, Varitek has seemingly wrapped up his career in Boston, one that deserves immortality with his No. 33 retired.
The writing was on the wall last week, when Red Sox general manager Ben Cherington didn't offer a convincing endorsement for Varitek and Tim Wakefield's chances of returning.
"I have a great deal of respect for [Wakefield and Varitek]," Cherington said. "I feel the best thing for the team and the best thing for them is if there's not a real role on the team, I'm not sure it's the right thing for them or the team, but we haven't gotten to that point yet.”
During his tenure, Varitek was the symbol of toughness for the Red Sox. He epitomized that label in 2004, shoving his mitt in Alex Rodriguez's face in one of the more memorable brawls between the Red Sox and Yankees.
During his tenure, Varitek was clutch. He clubbed 11 homers in the postseason, the most round-trippers for a catcher in playoff history.
Don't underestimate his influence on his own pitchers, either. Behind Varitek's guidance, four pitchers –– Hideo Nomo, Clay Buchholz, Derek Lowe and Jon Lester –– tossed no-hitters.
But the magic couldn't last forever.
After hitting just .221 and throwing out 14 percent of base runners in 2011, Varitek's production was dipping. The development of Lavarnway and Shoppach's cannon arm ultimately made him expendable.
Even as Varitek's skills diminished and the Red Sox gravitated toward youth, he never sulked as a backup. He served as a mentor for Saltalamacchia, who wound up as the starting catcher for the majority of last season.
"I tried to gain as much as I could from him, and we still have communication," Saltalamacchia said last week. "That line is always going to be open, regardless if he's with me or not.
"I took advantage of every opportunity I had with him. To be able to play a full year and watch him really helped me grow as a player, and that's really going to help me succeed.”
Varitek's contributions likely won't earn him a spot in baseball's Hall of Fame. But after propelling the Red Sox to two titles with his heroics, his number should wind up on Fenway Park's right-field facade.
Keep in mind that the other two captains in the team's history — Jim Rice and Carl Yastrzemski — have been recognized in that manner.
For now, Varitek still has gas left in the tank. Last season, he hammered 11 homers and had 36 RBIs in 68 games, which validates his ability to be a backup elsewhere. But his desire to finish his career in Boston could give way to a retirement.
Although Varitek's tenure in Boston may be over, the indelible image of him leaping into Keith Foulke's arms after winning the 2004 World Series still resonates, which new manager Bobby Valentine certainly understands.
"If he isn't back, I doubt [I would name another captain]," Valentine said at the winter meetings.
But even if the new skipper does name another captain somewhere down the line, there will never be another Jason Varitek. In many ways, he's become "The Captain."
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